David and Art - Helen Frankenthaler, Part I

May 10, 2021

Telling the story of a woman who moved American painting onward from a once dominant style.

Artist biographies are, for me, a pretty safe bet when it comes to reading material. If it’s about an artist I like, whose work I like, I can get a lot out of a good biography.  There’s a new one out of an artist named Helen Frankenthaler that, while I haven’t got the book yet, is giving me a chance to reflect on her and her work and I’m looking forward to reading it.  She deserves a good 

thorough biography.  It’s called Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, by an author named Alexander Nemerov.

Helen Frankenthaler was born in New York City in December, 1928.  Unlike, say, Robert Rauschenberg or Andy Warhol, her family was well-off; she grew up on Park Avenue on the Upper East Side. She studied art in high school and then at Bennington College from which she graduated in 1949.  She returned to New York City and began painting.  In the spring of 1950, she met and began a relationship with art critic Clement Greenberg, one of the titans of mid-century American culture.  Through him she met Jackson Pollock; his wife and fellow artist Lee Krasner; Barnett Newman; Adolph Gottlieb, and most of the dominant painters of the American avant-garde.  She had her first solo show at a gallery in New York in 1951.  But it wasn’t until the following year that she had her painting epiphany.  

For most of the 20th century, painting was largely a boy’s club. After World War II, as New York began to take over as the center of the art world from war-torn Paris, a handful of men dominated the scene, their style becoming known as “abstract expressionism.”Led by Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Pollock their works were often intense expressions of raw energy and inner turmoil. They were a hard-drinking and hard-living bunch. Their style seemed unassailable.

But a way of working through its dominance to whatever might be next came from Frankenthaler. She saw her first show of Jackson Pollock in 1950, and two years later at the age of 28, she took a big canvas (9 feet by 7 feet), laid it out on the floor like he did, and pondered a painting.  But instead of dripping and swirling the paint onto the canvas as was his style, she diluted it with turpentine, poured it, and then worked it around with a sponge.  More importantly, she used what was called an “unprimed” canvas so that the paint soaked in and stained it, rather than sitting on the surface like a traditional oil painting.

The result was “Mountains and Sea,” a work that looked halfway between a watercolor and an oil painting. The content was still mostly abstract, but the colors were soft and muted rather than bold and harsh, the edges blurred and indistinct.  It seemed, in the words of one critic, to open up rather than close off.

Frankenthaler is a painter that more people should know about.  Let’s talk more about her next week.